100 Film Favorites – #85: Darkman
(Sam Raimi, 1990)
Sometimes Liam Neeson just has to break some fingers.
Darkman stars Neeson as Dr. Peyton Westlake, a scientist working on designing synthetic skin for burn victims. When (surprise) corrupt 80s land developers want to hide evidence of their corruption uncovered by Westlake’s lawyer girlfriend, they hire a team of mobsters led by the sadistic Durant to break into his lab and destroy the evidence by any means necessary. The goons seize Westlake and torture him, then leave him tied up in his lab, which is wired to explode (the bomb is triggered by a drinking-bird toy).
Following the blast, everyone assumes Westlake dead. However, he is merely horribly disfigured. Also, because of his grievous injuries, the doctors who treat him simply sever the connection to the pain center in his brain. Without physical sensation to keep him grounded, Westlake’s emotions (and particularly his adrenaline levels) run unchecked…and thus is born the first superhero whose power is Liam Neeson crazy-rage.
Actually, Westlake has another power as well. Repairing the equipment in his lab, he is able to use his synthetic skin technology to manufacture different faces for himself, to cover his real, mutilated face. However, the skin is photo-sensitive and decays after exactly 99 minutes of exposure to light. So Westlake spends his days alternating between 99-minute dates with his girlfriend and impersonating Durant’s thugs so their boss will think them treacherous and have them killed.
“Darkman” was Sam Raimi’s first film with a major Hollywood studio. He initially had hopes of making a big-screen adaptation of the “Batman” or “The Shadow” comic book series. When neither of the respective rightsholders were willing to hand these properties to a relative rookie, Raimi decided to simply make up a costumed vigilante of his own, drawing on the tradition of monsters like the Phantom of the Opera and the Invisible Man (made famous by Universal, the film’s production studio).
Darkman was actually surprisingly successful (It may have influenced Raimi’s later selection as director for the trilogy of blockbuster Spider-Man films). I say surprisingly because Darkman is very strange. I saw it for the first time on cable, and…kind of couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Westlake’s disturbed state of mind is conveyed through surreal imagery and jarring edits, which both grow more severe whenever someone calls Westlake a freak. The crown jewel in this bizarre treasure trove is a scene in which Westlake, on a 99-minute date, takes his girlfriend to the carnival. When she complains about him always running off, he promises to “win [her] the biggest, pinkest elephant” at a midway game booth as consolation. He wins the game, but the attendant denies him his prize, saying he leaned in over the line. When Westlake protests, the attendant calls him a FREAK and all Hell breaks loose. Lightning storms crackle in Liam Neeson’s eyes, interspersed with shots of limb-flailing, maniacally-laughing clowns. Westlake reaches into the booth, grabs the attendant’s hand, and breaks all his fingers like string cheese before catapulting him through the rear wall. Westlake grabs a pink elephant off the wall and jabs it toward his girlfriend. When she recoils, frightened, he demands that she “TAKE THE FUCKING ELEPHANT!!!” Forget “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.” THIS is the quote that belongs at the top of the AFI’s 100 best.
See Darkman. It’s relatively easy to find – you can get it in Walmart bargain bins in a 3-pack with its two direct-to-video sequels. These sequels suffer from a severe lack of Liam Neeson, but the third one is okay – Westlake finally figures out how to make faces last longer than 99 minutes. But I digress. Lots of comic book films come and go these days, and few are half so memorable as “Darkman.” Look no further for all your clown-soaked Neeson-rage needs.
Tidbit: As with all Sam Raimi films, Evil Dead star Bruce Campbell makes a cameo. His is the last face Darkman dons before disappearing into the crowd at the end of the film.
Brian Terrill is the host of television show Count Gauntly’s Horrors from the Public Domain. You can keep up with Brian’s 100 Film Favorites countdown here.